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Arkansas River, Colorado
Report by Marc W. McCord
Pinnacle Rock to Canon City
~ 19.3 Miles

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SOAR Inflatable Canoes - Somewhere On A River

General Description

The Arkansas River forms in the Pike National Forest of Chaffee County in central Colorado, then flows south through Buena Vista and Salida before turning east by southeast at Coaldale. From there, it flows through Canon City and Pueblo to John Martin Reservoir, then into and across Kansas through Wichita, down into Oklahoma through Tulsa and Muskogee, where it again turns eartward into Arkansas at Fort Smith, flowing through Russellville, Little Rock and Pine Bluff before reaching its confluence with the Mighty Mississippi River on the Arkansas-Mississippi border. The Ark is a VERY long river with a large number of dams creating reservoirs in each state through which it passes. This description covers the section from Pinnacle Rock to Canon City.

Depending upon flow conditions the Arkansas River, between Pinnacle Rock and Canon City, will offer a Class III to IV whitewater ride that is exhiliarating for kayaks, canoes with flotation, and rafts. The top half of this section has SH 50 running parallel to the river on the right side, and roadside scouting can be done for the seven rapids above Royal Gorge Canyon. About 2 miles below the Pinnacle Rock put-in sits Three Rocks Rapid, a significant hazard that is all but invisible from SH 50, where the very act of lining up to avoid one obstacle may point a boat right at another obstacle of equal or greater concern - know where you are going BEFORE you go there!

The gradient for the upper 9 miles is about 33 FPM, increasing to 46 FPM through Royal Gorge. Difficulty on the run through the gorge also increases slightly, with the largest drops rated Class IV+ at flows over 2,700 cfs. This is the one section of the Arkansas River where most of the commercial traffic will be found, especially during the summer months, though it is usually paddled year-round. Even with the commercial development associated with the Royal Gorge, this section is rife with spectacular scenery everywhere you look.


Chaffee County, Colorado, bordered on the west by the San Isabel National Forest and on the east by the Pike National Forest in the Sawatch Range of the Rocky Mountains. Denver and Colorado Springs are to the north, Pueblo is to the east and Grand Junction is almost due west.

Distance from major cities

Durango 295 miles; Grand Junction 235 miles; Denver 135 miles; Pueblo 55 miles; Salt Lake City 420 miles; Albuquerque 305 miles; Phoenix 750 miles; Oklahoma City 585 miles; Dallas 745 miles; Austin 910 miles; San Antonio 925 miles; Houston 990 miles (all distances are approximate and depend upon starting point, destination point on the river and route taken.)

Water Quality and Flow Rates

Water quality is generally very good to excellent and clear, though snow-melt cold.This section is rated Class III to IV at flows below about 2,700 cfs, increasing by one half step at higher flows. Because of the cold water temperature, and the often cool to cold air temperature, wetsuits or drysuits are highly recommended to prevent hypothermia.

Best time to go

This section is usually boatable year-round, depending upon rainfall, winter snowpack and temperatures.

Hazards to navigation

Pinnacle Rock to Parkdale features 7 rapids rated Class III at flows below 2,700 cfs, increasing to Class III+ to IV whenever the flow exceeds that level. These rapids are Three Forks Rapid at 0.0 miles; Three Rocks Rapid at 1.9 miles; Five Points Rapid at 2.1 miles; Spikebuck Rapid at 3.5 miles; Shark's Tooth Rapid at 5.8 miles; Double Dip rapid at 6.0 miles; and Puppy Rapid at 6.3 miles. Three Rocks Rapid is the most challenging, offering a combination of holes, big standing waves and turns amid a sizable drop. The run gets progressively harder as the boater moves through the heart and soul of this hazard.

The 10 rapids in Royal Gorge are rated Class III to III+ at flows below 2,700 cfs, increasing to Class IV+ over that level. The gradient increases to 46 FPM and the water quickens a little. Big holes, strong cross currents, significant standing waves, eddy currents, big rocks in the channel and solid canyon walls all combine to make boating a challenge. This is NOT the place to be developing your novice skills as a whitewater river runner! Dress appropriately for the cold water, outfit boats (as in extra flotation for open canoes) for the challenges that await, and plan your runs according to your skill level and what the river is doing. The rapids in Royal Gorge are: El Primero at 10.5 miles, El Segundo at 10.6 miles, Sunshine Rapid at 11.4 miles, Sledgehammer Rapid at 12.0 miles, Squeezebox Rapid at 13.5 miles, The Narrows (doesn't EVERY Colorado river have one with this name?) Rapid at 14.0 miles, Wall Slammer at 14.3 miles, Boat Eater Rapid at 14.8 miles, Soda Fountain Rapid at 15.5 miles, and Pipeline Rapid at 15.8 miles. At about 18.3 miles is a dam with a chute on river left that can be run to the far left through a man-made slot. Just before the Canon City take-out is a small pile of twisted steel that can be avoided by keeping to the right.

River Access Points

Pinnacle Rock access on river right at 0.0 miles; Spikebuck access off SH 50 on river right at 3.5 miles; Parkdale access on river right at 9.1 miles; Canon City access at Centennial Park on river right at 19.12 miles; and Riverfront access off SH 50 below the Griffin and 4th Streets intersection at 19.3 miles.

Campgrounds and accommodations

Five Points Campground off SH 50 on river right at about 2.0 miles is the only public campground on this section of the Arkansas River. Other campgrounds are available in each of the sections above this one.

Liveries, outfitters and shuttle services

Rentals, shuttles and/or other river related services are available from any of several outfitters located on or serving the Arkansas River.

Reviewer's comments

This section of the Arkansas River is ideal for intermediate level whitewater boaters developing or tightening their chops before advancing to bigger water, or more advanced paddlers just looking for a fun and somewhat challenging run. It can also be run by less expreienced paddlers in guided rafts. The awesome scenery begs to be photographed, and the section offers excellent photographic opportunities for capturing images of paddlers showing their stuff, but make sure you have a waterproof camera, or one carried in a water-tight case that is strapped to the boat. This section can be run by canoeists, kayakers and rafters who are properly equipped and outfitted for moderately strong whitewater, or novice paddlers in guided rafts. There are some big boulders in the channel, so be on your game when approaching them - don't wrap, and don't go swimming!

Technical Data
Class Rating III to IV+
Length 19.3 miles
Minimum Flow cfs
Optimum Flow cfs
Maximum Flow cfs
First Put-in Pinnacle Rock Access
Last Take-out Canon City Access
Elevation msl
Gradient 33-46 fpm
USGS Gauge Web: 07091200 (Nathrop)
Web: 07094500 (Parkdale)
Boats Canoes, Kayaks, Rafts
Season Year-round, weather permitting
Permits No

Sunshine Falls on the Arkansas River - photo courtesy Wilderness Aware Rafting
Sunshine Falls on the Arkansas River
photo courtesy Wilderness Aware Rafting

Poudre Paddlers Canoe and Kayak Club

Click HERE to visit the web site of Rocky Mountain Canoe Club

Canoeman River Guide Service - Guided river trips in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah

Lone Star Paddler - the paddlesports web site of Marc W. McCord

Click HERE to visit the web site of Pikes Peak Whitewater Club

Click the links below for information regarding the section of the Arkansas River and its tributaries where you want to paddle.

[ Arkansas River Homepage ] [ Granite to Buena Vista ] [ Buena Vista to Stone Bridge ] [ Stone Bridge to Rincon ]
[ Rincon to Pinnacle Rock ] [ Grape Creek ] [ Lake Creek ]

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